Citizen Scientists

From bird watching to counting toads, ordinary folks are doing the work of researchers

Whether exploring climate change and ecosystem health or consumer safety, the scientific world is tackling large and complex questions. It’s a big job, and it’s no secret that there just aren’t enough scientists to do it alone.

Enter the “citizen scientist.” Researchers here in Southwest Michigan — and elsewhere around the globe — are relying more and more on these volunteers who help collect data, make observations and do research in limited forms.

Citizen science has been around a long time, from the days when the everyday person would provide anecdotal evidence for scientific research. But with the advent of the Internet, citizen science projects abound. The result is that citizen scientists have become meaningful contributors to science and the scientific community has openly embraced their involvement.

A calling

Sometimes a calling to be a citizen scientist doesn’t come from an institution, but from nature.

When Kalamazoo couple Russ Schipper and Ilse Gebhard met 25 years ago, they started spending a lot of time outdoors. Gebhard and Schipper shared an interest in learning about the vegetation, insects, birds and animals in their backyard. After a while, Schipper’s inquisitive nature, coupled with Gebhard’s fastidious scientific mind, led them to pursue outlets for their interests.

Today, the retired couple take part in several citizen-science projects, including the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, the Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program, the Kalamazoo River Watershed Program, the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, Journey North and South (a global study of wildlife migration), Project Feeder Watch, the Lost Ladybug Project and the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Gebhard spends most of her time studying the monarch butterfly population of Michigan by observing the butterflies, raising them and monitoring milkweed and other vegetation in her backyard that the butterflies’ caterpillars feed on. While Schipper’s focus is directed more toward birding, he and Gebhard help each other with their individual pursuits.

“Some people are perfectly content to simply enjoy nature,” Schipper says, “but I want to know what everything is out there. I like doing things with a purpose, and so does Ilse. It’s work to some people, but it’s become second nature to us.”

Even though the scientific community designs citizen-friendly projects to be as simple as possible, citizen science requires a certain attention to detail. That’s where Gebhard and Schipper shine. Both have an aptitude for the study of nature, and Gebhard, a retired chemist, takes it one step further by applying her background to the study.

“I like to collect data,” Gebhard says. “I’m familiar with the scientific method, and even though I don’t have a biology background, I’m capable of shifting my experience from chemistry to biology.”

Schipper, who leads the Christmas Bird Count for the Kalamazoo chapter of the Michigan Audubon Society, says that each project he and Gebhard take part in monitors the health of the local ecosystem. Gebhard’s monarch butterfly data has even been used in a published study. For the couple, it’s the effect of their work that attracts them to citizen science.

That’s the draw researchers are hoping will attract more people. Researchers are working to make the process of citizen science easier so that people without scientific backgrounds or without the time to devote to study can still participate.

There’s an app for that

Cyber Citizens, a collaborative group of students and faculty at Michigan Technological University, is part of this effort to simplify citizen science by creating citizen-friendly apps for use in the field. Most of the apps are still in development, including beach, lichen and air-quality monitoring apps, but one app is already available online, EthnoApp.

EthnoApp is for the collection of anthropological data — it enables users to record interviews and store the audio recordings online in a file with accompanying videos and photos.

Anna Lee Presley, a doctoral student at Michigan Tech, uses the app to interview residents of the Upper Peninsula community of Paavola or those who like to visit the Paavola Wetlands Preserve. By using the app, Presley is able to give feedback on how it aids her in her research, how usable the collection method is and how its accessibility can be improved. She sees EthnoApp as a necessary step in using technology to assist citizen scientists.

“I’m the first to use this app in a field setting, and I think it’s easy to use,” Presley says. “There’s really no limit to how this app could be used, not only to add to the collected history of the Paavola community, but to aid in other ethnographic studies.”

Alex Mayer and Robert Pastel, the two professors spearheading the Cyber Citizens initiative, say that’s exactly what they want — an app that can be used for a variety of applications. The development of apps, they say, encourages interdisciplinary cooperation among computer scientists, natural scientists and communication scientists, the result of which should be apps that empower the citizen scientist.

“The apps help people get outdoors and observe the environment directly,” Pastel says. “And you could collect data with a bunch of different devices, but why not use the one device many people carry — smartphones?”

Mayer agrees, adding that as smartphones become more and more sophisticated, their application in citizen science is limitless.

“Each smartphone has GPS, video, a camera, a notebook with our apps. We can get people to use these devices for good purposes.”

Making it possible for ordinary people to use their usual devices in unusual scientific capacities arms citizen scientists with the tools they need to become better data collectors. And that’s a good step, because citizen scientists aren’t always out in the field solely to take part in research — many help the scientific community collect data while catching fish, tracking game or trapping animals.

Engaging outdoor enthusiasts

One barrier citizen-science programs face is making the collection process as simple as possible so anglers, hunters, observers and residents can collect data in less time and with fewer errors.

The Michigan Sea Grant’s Salmon Ambassador Program, led in part by Daniel O’Keefe, has come up with one method: fin clips. O’Keefe, the southwest district Extension educator for Michigan Sea Grant, is working with local anglers to track how many of the Chinook salmon caught in Lake Michigan are stocked, how many are wild, and where each salmon comes from. The data can influence the way the lake is stocked so the predator-prey balance stays in homeostasis and Lake Michigan doesn’t experience the same type of imbalance Lake Huron did in 2003 and 2004, when its Chinook salmon population crashed.

“Research has found that if we were to keep stocking the same amount of salmon in Lake Michigan as we were a couple of years ago, there would be a 20 percent chance of crashing the fisheries,” O’Keefe says.

After collecting data by way of a survey sent to local residents, the program leaders decreased salmon stocking by 50 percent. They then had to come up with a way to monitor the results.

This year the Sea Grant program tagged every single farmed fish with an adipose fin clip, indicating that the fish has a microscopic identifier in its snout. Anglers need only look for the clip, measure the fish, note where they caught it and take its head to a drop-off site. With the information gathered, Sea Grant leaders will know where stocking is most effective and what the wild salmon population looks like in comparison to the farmed population.

“People assume that the fish they catch are stocked nearby,” O’Keefe says. “Thanks to this type of data, we know that’s not true. A lot of fish are wild, and some stocked fish come from up north. If we can find out what places rely on local stocking, we’ll be able to stock more effectively.”

With projects like the Salmon Ambassador Program, scientists take advantage of citizens out in the field, asking them to add a couple of extra steps to their normal activities. But sometimes the activities themselves inspire science, instead of the other way around.

Candid camera

Remote trail cameras, which are used to help hunters scout locations, take pictures of animals passing by, using a motion detector to trip the shutter. The cameras are meant to track possible prey, but they’ve had an unintended effect on science.

Adam Bump, a bear and furbearer specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, explains that as camera technology has advanced, the simplest forms of the cameras have become very affordable, and more cameras now populate the woods, marshes and wetlands of Michigan. As a result, hunters have started writing to the DNR asking for identification of the critters caught on camera.

“In order to get detailed information that is scientifically valuable and tells you something meaningful, you have to control for all of the variables,” Bump explains. “We haven’t figured out a way to do that with trail cameras yet, but we have started to use these pictures as presence and absence information, letting scientists know where certain animals might reside.”

Trail cameras are catching pictures of bobcats, beavers, bears, deer and even cougars (in the Upper Peninsula), and although the photos might not provide usable research data, Bump says the scientific community is looking for a way to make trail cameras a bigger part of the picture. Until then, some photos help establish a presence of a species where scientists thought there were none, such as photos that caught cougars in the Marquette area, putting scientists on the trail of wide-ranging big cats.

Finding a way to take data that citizens are already collecting, such as photo evidence and anecdotal discoveries, and translating that data into scientifically sound samples presents a challenge, but so does asking citizens to collect data they would not normally collect, as in the case of organizations that seek citizens to help determine the effects of everyday products on their lives.

Indoor research

The Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health (MNCEH), based in Ann Arbor, formalized its reach into the citizen-science community two years ago with the formation of a Citizen Scientist Corps, a group of citizens that collects data on everyday products, like couches, clothing, and cleaning products, and tests that data to determine the possible health impacts of these products. The data helps the MNCEH determine where to emphasize health outreach.

“Our Citizen Scientist Corps is really important because it offers us a way to get folks in the community involved and moving up an advocacy ladder,” says Rebecca Mueninck, environmental health campaign director for MNCEH. “We want citizens to learn what is in their stuff, and then we want to help them develop as advocates for change.”

One example is when the Corps asked citizen scientists to collect samples of their own couches to test for Firemaster 550, a flame-retardant chemical. After two years of data collection, the numbers were used in a published peer-reviewed study that outlined the dangers of the chemical and was publicized nationally to increase awareness.

What the work of the Citizen Scientist Corps proves, Meuninck says, is that everyday people — parents, pet owners, homeowners — can make an impact on their community, no background in science needed.

Youthful future

If parents can collect data, and everyday people can become a part of a large-scale national research collective that affects the global market, then can kids take part in citizen science too?

Yes, says Brandon Schroeder, a Michigan Sea Grant Extension educator in northeast Michigan.

“You hear a lot about youth being our future, but they don’t have to be our future, they can be our today,” he says. “The skills and content they’re learning in school is readily applied to research. There’s a wide diversity of projects we can do with kids.”

Schroeder works with kids and teens in northeast Michigan to monitor Rusty crayfish populations, study plastic pollution, look at the impact of invasive species and monitor the health of Lake Huron beaches. In each case, Schroeder says, the students are learning how to collect meaningful data, and the Sea Grant program is looking for a real-world way to use it.

In Kalamazoo, Russ Schipper works to engage youth by mentoring as many young birders as he can. Three of his citizen-scientist accomplices are twins Parker and Bailey Weiss, 13, and Will Keller, also 13, from Kalamazoo.

Parker and Bailey say they love taking part in citizen science because it gives them a chance to use their ornithology skills to measure data the scientific community can use. Keller, who has his own bird-watching blog, says that he wants to be good enough to have his data included in the bird count. He says Schipper is helping him reach his goal.

Research close to home

The Michigan Audubon Society, Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Citizen Scientist Corps all offer ways for Southwest Michigan residents to get involved in citizen science related to the Kalamazoo community (see sidebar for details and contact information).

Another option for locals is to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, which is a hub for citizen scientists. Volunteers can help with a bluebird nesting project done in conjunction with Cornell University; butterfly research with the Michigan Butterfly Network; the Christmas Bird Count; a sandhill crane count; seasonal bird counts; water quality watch programs; a July butterfly count; and bird banding.

“Most of our projects are a part of national data collections,” explains Sarah Reding, the Nature Center’s vice president for conservation stewardship. “All involve training on protocol, how to identify, how to monitor and how to enter data.”

When people learn about their environment, especially at a local level, there’s a larger community pull to take responsibility for what happens to it, Reding says. That’s why the Nature Center provides serious training for citizens, including offering a conservation stewardship class through MSU Extension that includes eight weeks of classes and 40 hours of outside work.

In the bird-banding program, citizen scientists work alongside professional staff to learn about the patterns of bird migration. The staff place small, metal bands on the legs of birds to track migration and study longevity and dispersal, and citizen scientists collect the data on each bird banded and enter it into a national database.

No matter what the project involved, citizen science allows for the pursuit of large amounts of data. The more organizations and people involved, the greater the sample size and the more accurate the big picture will be. But citizen science also fosters a sense of community and a connection to nature. It allows everyday people to notice what’s going on in their backyard and, if need be, change it.

“Citizen science gets citizens more interested in their environment, which makes them closer to their environment,” says Mayer, the Michigan Tech professor working on EthnoApp and other apps. “It extends the reach of the citizen and the scientist, allows the citizen to become more interested in science and enables the scientist to go where they couldn’t normally go.”


Local Citizen Science Opportunities

This list is just a small sample of the myriad programs available, including those mentioned in the article.

Audubon Society of Kalamazoo

Great Lakes Marsh Monitoring Program
Email Kathy Jones: volunteer@birdscanada.org

Kalamazoo Nature Center
Or email Sarah Reding: sreding@naturecenter.org

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health

Michigan Sea Grant, Southwest Area,
Salmon Ambassador Project
Email Daniel O’Keefe: okeefed@anr.msu.edu

National Opportunities

Project Feeder Watch

Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Project Monarch Health

Journey North and South

Lost Ladybug Project